Handling Underhanded Comments in the Workplace

When a variety of people with different backgrounds and personalities are working in one office, conflicts can occur. Unfortunately, condescending and underhanded comments made by employees can impact the morale and productivity of an entire team. Learning how to handle condescension in the workplace can help you create a positive work environment and ensure maximum productivity for your entire team.

Related: 7 Effective Skills to Help You Become a Better Leader


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How to handle condescension at work

Here are some steps you can take to handle condescension at work:


1. Pause before you react

Rather than reacting immediately and saying something you might later regret, pause for a moment to determine the intent. Sometimes, employees don’t intend to be rude, but let comments slip unintentionally. Consider addressing the comment by asking "Are you trying to say [insert implied message]." If the person did not mean to come across as condescending, they will likely apologize and the conflict resolves immediately. 


2. Evaluate your relationship

Determine the kind of relationship you have with the person who is making underhanded comments to you. If it’s a member of your own team, you may want to have a private conversation to discuss their behavior with them directly. If it’s an employee who works under another manager, you may want to consider just changing the subject or ignoring the remark altogether.


3. Consider the time and place

Before you react, remember that there is a time and a place for everything. For example, are you alone in your office or are you in a meeting with many other people? If you are in a meeting, it isn’t the time or place to address the situation directly. In this situation, ignoring the comment and shifting your attention to other members of your team may be the best way to address it.


4. Have a conversation

If the condescending employee’s behavior is intentional and occurring frequently, it’s time to have a conversation. Document specific instances in advance so that you can reference them during the conversation. Schedule a time to meet with the employee one-on-one so you can have a conversation that’s uninterrupted. Mention specific situations in which the employee behaved inappropriately and discuss how it impacted you, as their manager, as well as other members of the team. Discuss how maintaining a positive work environment is your topic priority and what the repercussions may be if the behavior continues.


In some cases, the employee may not even be fully aware of how their behavior is impacting those around them. In this situation, a single conversation may resolve the problem entirely. If they are aware, then understanding the action that will be taken if the behavior continues may deter future problems.

Related: How to Manage Employees


5. Address the problem with management or HR

If the individual’s behavior is still not changing, after a conversation, it’s time to address the ongoing behavior by filing a formal complaint with the human resources department. Bullying behaviors impact the morale of an entire department and if the individual refuses to modify their behavior, disciplinary action must be taken.


Tips for dealing with underhanded comments

Here are some additional tips you may want to try for managing underhanded comments:

  • Look for opportunities to change the subject from the underhanded comment and respond with genuine kindness. By shifting the conversation to something positive, you can rapidly change the tone of the exchange and possibly even reduce the likelihood of future comments.
  • Sometimes, depending on the comment, the best thing you can do is to not take someone’s underhanded comment too seriously. Consider responding with good-natured humor of your own.
  • If you suspect an employee is going to start making underhanded comments, look for excuses to remove yourself from the conversation or the room. If you suspect that the employee is going to make an underhanded comment towards another employee, look for justification for removing that person from the room as well.
  • You can often send a powerful message to the employee with whom you’re speaking by responding with silence or changing the subject to another topic. You could also respond with a calm question like, "Is this something that bothers you?"
  • If an employee comes to you about problems with a colleague who is making underhanded remarks, remind them that the comments aren’t about them. People often make these comments to feel better about themselves so your team members should never let comments influence how they feel about themselves.
  • Address the problem in an assertive manner. This manner means that you state the problem without attacking them or displaying any aggressive behavior of your own. Instead, you remain calm, analyze the other person’s behavior and motives and discuss it with them in a calm and rational manner.
  • Encourage team members to focus on making each day positive, regardless of the behaviors of others. Remind members of your team not to allow others to control how they think, feel or what kind of day they’re going to have. Suggest they take a deep breath to stay calm and their thoughts to focus on positive ones.


Frequently asked questions about handling underhanded comments in the workplace

Here are a few of the most frequently asked questions that people ask about how to deal with underhanded comments in the workplace:


What are underhanded comments?

An underhanded comment is a seemly polite statement that has a hidden meaning, usually negative in connotation. Underhanded comments are often referred to as snide remarks or backhanded comments.


How can you tell if someone is being condescending?

In general, you can tell someone is being condescending if you feel put down or belittled when they talk to you.


What are some examples of disrespectful behavior in the workplace?

Outside of underhanded comments, other examples of disrespectful behavior include gossip, intimidation, giving co-workers the silent treatment and unwelcome uses of profanity.


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